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Time to decommission Question Time

June 15, 2012

With Baroness Sayeeda Warsi mired in controversy we may be mercifully spared her regular TV appearances on BBC’s Question Time. She has, after all, been on so often recently that you could be forgiven for thinking that she had started to co-host the show with David Dimbleby.

Warsi, to be frank is a bit dopey and unelected, yet the Conservative party seems to have no qualms about her regularly appearing on it’s behalf on one of the mainstream media’s ‘flagship’ politics programmes. Why?

I suspect that the Tories care little about Question Time these days. It’s an increasingly tired TV format and doesn’t look fit for purpose in today’s political climate. That’s how I feel about it anyway. Put simply: it’s boring.

I didn’t always feel this way. When I first started watching as a politically curious teenager back in the 1980s, it was must-see-TV. I used to watch with my Dad, a working class Tory in the mould of Alf Garnet! Still, it was watching Question Time that I was introduced to socialism by Tony Benn.

I remember Benn asked very simply: what kind of society do you want to live in? Then he briefly painted a picture of Thatcher’s Britain, which corresponded with my own experience as an unemployed teenager, and contrasted it to a democratic socialist society, which sounded like something to aspire to.

I wonder does anyone ever feel particularly inspired or moved watching Question Time these days? Or do they just feel irritated and patronised.

It seems to me that Question Time faces a similar predicament to another great and now deceased BBC institution – Top of the Pops, which went through the agony of various revamps and face-lifts before it was put to rest.

Top of the Pops was decommissioned because the ever increasing competition from multimedia and niche musical outlets meant it no longer occupied the predominant role it once had. In essence, the show depended upon a consensus around what mattered in pop music, and in particular the centrality of an official chart, which no longer exists. In short, the context within which Top of the Pops existed changed and the show floundered in the new environment.

Question Time belongs to an era when a national political debate could be largely represented by a small number of parties, all of whom had parliamentary representation. But the consensus around the legitimacy of parliamentary politics and faith in its effectiveness has begun to disintegrate. It has been undermined by a perceived loss of sovereignty; voter apathy; the growth of political parties and organisations of both Left and Right who aren’t in the mainstream but articulate ideas that are too prevalent to ignore.

Enlarging the panel on Question Time hasn’t helped and in some ways only exposes the formats problems all the more. Look at the guests on a typical show. The government is effectively represented by two representatives – one Lib-Dem, the other Conservative; a Labour MP, a journalist (usually from the Right – after all the UK’s press is predominantly of that political complexion); and someone from the world of entertainment as a sop to the young people.

If you were an alien, visiting modern Britain, and your first encounter with politics was Question Time, you’d assume that everyone in the UK was a celebrity obsessed Right-winger… or a Daily Mail reader, which is same thing really.

I’m happy to concede that maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s my age. Maybe I’ve just out grown Question Time. Maybe it was always a bit crap and I was too young to notice. Maybe I’m entirely unrepresentative of public opinion and everybody else thinks that Question Time is an integral part of our political process and a paragon of public service broadcasting. But my hunch is that there are a lot of us watching the show who experience a curious disconnect between the world as we experience it and the way it is discussed by Question Time guests.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2012 10:36 am

    Aye, Rab, QT seems to have past its sell-by date as have other local or national versions of it. BBC NI’s Spotlight Special goes out on an occasional basis but suffers from the same problems you’ve identified in QT, while RTE scrapped its own version, Questions and Answers, a long time ago.

    But I think you’ve scratched the surface of a broader and much deeper malaise in TV’s presentation of news and politics: the insistence on a very particular, institutional conception of balance and impartiality; the drive for a national consensus where none exists; the fear of political flak; and a distinct lack of imagination in production terms.

    By way of illustration, take Newsnight. In last night’s edition (15 June), the excellent Paul Mason looked at the impending general election in Greece and considered the likely implications of a victory for either the left-wing Syriza party or the right-wing New Democracy party. His feature report was followed by a panel discussion in the studio with Jeremy Paxman and three guests: a Tory MP, a German financial journalist, and an investment banker, all of whom, surprise surprise!, stressed the importance for the entire world it seemed of a victory for New Democracy. This was in spite of Paul Mason’s warning of big question marks over that party’s ability to actually govern if it does win on Sunday.

    This happens all the time on Newsnight. It has a host of very good journalists doing interesting things only to editorially cordon off and defuse any hint of perspective or alternative analysis that might emerge from their work.

    Okay…that’s long enough for a reply.

  2. June 16, 2012 11:58 am

    The only downside to decommissioning Question Time (which I gave up on long ago) is the concomitant loss of the amusing howls of vitriol on Twitter – many originating from the the author of this blog – which enliven my viewing of Newsnight on Thursdays….

    Mind, as AA says, that’s on its way downhill as well and whoever fixes up the studio discussions simply isn’t of the same quality as (most of) their correspondents. There is, of course, a special place in all lefties’ hearts for Mason, but Mark Urban and Susan Watts are pretty impressive as well (Allegra Stratton much less so unfortunately).

  3. June 16, 2012 12:32 pm

    Here Here. QT probably would be more interesting if broadcast live as so much of the juicier points are edited out before it’s aired. Hence why This Week is much more mature and relevant.

    Junior Question Time screened on BBC3 earlier this year was more interesting.

  4. Rab permalink*
    June 16, 2012 8:17 pm

    Welcome, Africanherbsman,
    A live broadcast might give it a bit of an edge, sadly lacking at the moment from the show.

    Charlie,
    I completely missed the whole QT this week because I spent the entire time arguing on Twitter. Don’t know whether it was an any more useful way to put my time in. Time will tell.

    AA,
    You’re not wrong and it’s a peculiarly dangerous crisis for public service television.

  5. Strategist permalink
    June 16, 2012 10:56 pm

    Couldn’t we just decommission Dimbleby? (And his ridiculous little brother running the radio equivalent.)
    I think they’re building a concrete tomb at Sellafield to safely store the remains.

  6. June 17, 2012 1:01 am

    I think it’s too late. The Dimblebys have long since polluted British public culture.

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